The Sony Xperia Z5 range finds itself in a strange place right now. After a rather muted launch in Europe last year the Z5, Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium have all arrived in North America, minus the all-important fingerprint scanner and any genuine fanfare. Sony has struggled to make a dent in the US for quite some time now, and this delayed and rather weak push is unlikely to win it any admirers - especially as it has very recently announced that the Xperia Z range is effectively dead and will be replaced by the Xperia X line, unveiled at MWC 2016.
With that in mind, you might wonder why we're bothering to review the Z5 Compact, but the fact of the matter is that the entire Z5 range is well worth a look and Sony's mystifying lack of confidence shouldn't be mistaken for a cover-up job. We've chosen to focus on the smallest member of the family because it offers something that is pretty unique in the Android arena these days: a pint-sized phone with powerful internals.
And up to very recently, Sony had this little market niche all to itself. The iPhone SE of course is smaller but the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact packs much more of a punch in the specs and display department. The only real question here, though, is whether there is still demand for such a small phone in today’s Android space where the average display size is 5+ inches?
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Design & Display
Compared to the army of big-screen phablets currently dominating the Android sector of the smartphone market, the Z5 Compact looks positively dainty - and we love it. It's a throwback to the days when you didn't need to borrow a pair of MC Hammer's trousers to comfortably conceal your mobile in your pocket, and its 4.6-inch screen is easy to use with just one hand. Scoop up the Z5 Compact after using any phone with a screen of 5 inches or more, and it feels like you've stepped back in time - in a good way.
The race to make screen sizes bigger has resulted in limited choice for those not into BIG phones, and we're personally very glad that Sony has thought to cater to this no doubt very large demographic.
While the Z5 Compact doesn't have a metal frame like the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6, it still feels like a premium proposition. The frosted glass back panel looks the business, although like any glass surface it needs to be treated with kid gloves to avoid cracks – a case is most definitely in order.
The boxy, squared-off plastic design might seem a bit old-fashioned, but somehow it still manages to look futuristic and cool; Sony doesn't get enough credit for its design work these days, in our opinion. On the right-hand edge you'll find the power button (which doubles as the fingerprint scanner) and volume controls – the latter positioned below the former, annoyingly – as well as a decided camera shutter button, which even has a two-step push mechanism so you can use it to focus before taking a shot. On the left-hand side there's a flap which conceals the Nano SIM card and MicroSD card tray. The bottom edge is home to the Micro USB charging port (no USB Type-C here) while on the top you'll find the 3.5mm headphone socket.
In terms of size, the Compact lives up to its name when compared to the standard Xperia Z5. It measures is 127 x 65 x 8.9mm, while its bigger sibling is 146 x 72 x 7.3mm. So while it most certainly is more pocket-friendly, it's actually a little thicker, a consequence of Sony having to cram essentially the same internals into a small frame. Oh, and did we mention that the Z5 Compact is waterproof? Well, "splash-proof" might be a more accurate description as Sony has gone on record to dissuade owners from using their phones underwater, but even so, knowing that your blower will survive an accidental drop in the sink is good for your peace of mind.
The Z5 Compact's 720 x 1280 pixel screen may well set alarm bells ringing, especially when Sony is also pushing the Z5 Premium with its 4K screen, but the 4.6-inch display size means that the resolution isn't an issue as it's practically impossible to spot individual pixels unless you really look closely. In fact, you might come to see it as something as a blessing, as the processor is put under less strain as it's having to move less pixels. That aside, the LCD panel offers excellent performance, with dark blacks and punchy colours. It's also easy to see in direct sunlight.
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Hardware Specifications
While you might assume that the Z5 Compact has weaker internals than its brothers, that isn't actually the case. All three Z5 models have the same chipset, and the only real difference is that the Compact has 2GB of RAM while the Z5 and Z5 Premium have 3GB. Elsewhere, the spec sheets remains unchanged - right down to the inclusion of 32GB of storage, MicroSD support and NFC.
Sony has perhaps unwisely stuck with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chipset which featured in the Xperia Z3+ (which was basically the Xperia Z4 smartphone in all but name). This chip caused major headaches for both its manufacturer and the companies which used it in these handsets in 2015. It offers excellent power, but it is prone to overheating, which is reported to cause serious performance throttling. Things got so bad that Samsung shunned the 810 for the Galaxy S6 and Qualcomm had to issue a stop-gap chipset in the form of the Snapdragon 808, which can be found inside the Nexus 5X and Xiaomi Mi4C.
Sony insists that the 810 inside the Z5 range has been tinkered with to ensure it doesn't get too hot, and during our review we found that it did seem to behave itself more than the one in the Z3+, which would often cause crashes or refuse to record 2K video.
In fact, during our time with the Z5 Compact we didn't experience a single force-close due to overheating, and we really pushed the handset in terms of gaming, video recording and other CPU-intensive tasks. The catch is that the device still becomes quite hot when under pressure, although we honestly can't say if it's any hotter than any other leading smartphone from the past 12 months; they all get pretty toasty under intense work loads. The main thing here is that Sony and Qualcomm seem to have improved the 810 to the point where it no longer causes crippling performance issues, despite the heat.
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Software & User Experience
Sony has drastically scaled back its custom user interface over the past few years and now it looks a lot like stock Android, with a few embellishments here and there. Android 5.1 comes pre-loaded, but an upgrade to Marshmallow has just launched in Japan for the entire Z5 range and is expected to arrive elsewhere in the world very soon.
If you look carefully enough you'll see that Sony has tweaked and customised Android, and for the most part, these are meaningful changes. Hold down the power button for example and you'll be presented with the usual "Power Off" and "Restart" options, but Sony has included a "Record Screen" feature in this menu, where you can capture video directly from the phone's display. There's also the "Small Apps" element which resides in the app menu. These are little pop-up windows which can be floated over the main screen. While it might sound nice to be able to have a pop-up calculator or browse a website in two windows, the small size of the Z5 Compact's screen makes this rather impractical - it no doubt makes more sense on the larger Z5 and Z5 Premium, but it's nice to have all the same.
While most handset makers are learning that people don't want bloatware on their phones, Sony is dragging its feet somewhat. Sure, it's possible to completely uninstall some of the unwanted apps which come with the Z5 Compact, it's a pain to do so - and there are still a handful which cannot be expunged and therefore soak up valuable storage space. It's not anywhere near as bad as it was in the Sony Ericsson days, where bloatware and small internal storage capacity left users with phones that filled up after just a day or so of use, but Sony really needs to stop forcing apps on people and give them the chance to customize their handset how they see fit. That said, the generous 32GB of internal storage - coupled with MicroSD support - means that space is rarely in short supply here.
In terms of overall user experience, the Z5 Compact feels fast and responsive. Moving between applications is swift, although there are times when the phone stutters - presumably when the 2GB of RAM is full and apps have to be closed. The biggest delays are when you open the camera or gallery app, but everything else works without a hitch. Special mention must go to the excellent fingerprint scanner, hidden away in the power button on the side of the phone. It's where you thumb naturally rests when you pick up the device and makes unlocking it effortless. The scanner is highly accurate and rarely requires more than one touch to unlock. When Android 6.0 arrives, the Z5 Compact will be able to use the scanner to authenticate purchases on the Google Play store, as well as make contactless purchases via NFC (when Google gets around to launching Android Pay in the UK, of course).
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Camera
Sony is understandably proud of its mobile camera technology, and with the Z5 range it has outdone itself. The Z5 Compact sports a 23 megapixel snapper with autofocus which - according to Sony - can take a shot in 0.03 seconds. What that means in basic terms is that the phone will capture an image quicker and should be less prone to producing blurred images. Having recently used the Nexus 5X - which had a sluggish camera and offered some disappointedly blurred photos - the Z5 Compact is a breath of fresh air. While the camera app itself can take a little too long to boot up, once it's running it grabs images quickly. Shots are blur-free and packed with detail, although the exposure could be better.
Sony has included a suite of exclusive camera apps, including an Augmented Reality shooting mode where you can add 3D objects to images. It's a similar system to that used in SnapChat's new "face swap" mode, but it goes one better by scanning the environment and looking for flat surfaces where it can place imaginary objects. A personal favourite of ours is the jungle theme, which places a fully-animated 3D monkey on your head. You can record the results, which are rarely anything less than hilarious. The front-facing "selfie" cam on the Z5 Compact is rated at 5.1 megapixels and is perfect for Instagram shots and video calling.
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Memory and Battery Life
A phone with a 4.6-inch screen size really has no right to offer 32GB of storage as standard, but that's how Sony rolls - and we're grateful for it. While small-screen Android devices tend to ship with 4, 8 and occasionally 16GB of space, Sony's pint-sized challenger makes sure you have plenty of room - and you can upgrade your storage with cheap-and-cheerful MicroSD cards.
A 2,700mAh battery might not sound all that impressive in today's market, but when aligned with a phone with such a small screen, it's more than enough. We never failed to get through an entire day during our review period; in fact, in most cases there was enough juice left in the tank to make it through a good chunk of the following day, too. The Z5 Compact has amazing stamina - even if you like listening to music, browsing the web, watching videos and playing games during your average day, you'll struggle to exhaust the phone's battery by bedtime. Quick-charging helps speed up the top-up process, which means your phone will spend even less time tethered to a wall socket. If staying power is a primary concern when it comes to purchasing a smartphone, then you'll adore this little wonder.
Sony Xperia Z5 Compact Review: Conclusion
We honestly cannot fathom why Sony is considered to be an "also-ran" in the world of smartphones, especially when it is able to produce a handset as likeable as this one. The Japanese tech giant should be applauded not only for creating a small-screen device in this age of phablets, but also for equipping that device with the same specs as its larger-screen siblings. It would have been very easy for the company to follow its competitors and use the Z5 branding on a phone which was weaker than its stablemates, but Sony has given consumers a choice - go big or go small, but don't compromise on specs.
That said, the Z5 Compact isn't without its niggles. Bloatware is annoying, and we wish the camera application would boot up quicker. The Snapdragon 810 does get a little hot under the collar at times, but it's nowhere near as bad as you might imagine - and didn't result in any crashes during our review. The 720p screen is rather behind the curve too, but when you consider that the display measures 4.6-inches from corner to corner, it's not as big a problem as you might assume.
Of course, having technological parity with the rest of the Z5 range means that Z5 Compact isn't in the same budget ballpark as other small-screen Android offerings - Expect to pay anywhere from £350 to £400, which places Sony's phone dangerously near the upper-end of the market, where you could argue that the recently-superseded Galaxy S6 makes better sense. However, some retailers are beginning to discount the phone and for around £300, this represents excellent value. Expect the price to drop even further when the new Xperia X range launches.
Not that the price will be a concern for certain buyers; the fact that the Z5 Compact is small and powerful will be reason enough to give it a chance. It has this sector of the market all to itself, but don't go expecting a successor any time soon, as Sony's new Xperia X range starts with a 5-inch screen size, so the company seems to have turned its back on the "Compact" concept for the time being. If you want power and functionality but don't want a handset that feels like an ungainly slab in your hand, this is the phone to go for.